In its Judgment of 18 June 2013 in case C-681/11 Schenker and Others, the Court of Justice of the European Union has settled the difficult issue of whether an error with regard to the lawfulness of
market conduct is unobjectionable in the case where the undertaking acts in
accordance with advice given by a legal adviser experienced in matters
of competition law and the erroneous nature of the advice was neither
obvious nor capable of being identified through the scrutiny which the
undertaking could be expected to exercise.
The CJEU has gone beyond the very strict test proposed by Advocate General Kokott (see comments here) and has very bluntly determined that
38 […] the fact that the undertaking concerned has characterised wrongly in law its conduct upon which the finding of the infringement is based cannot have the effect of exempting it from imposition of a fine in so far as it could not be unaware of the anti-competitive nature of that conduct.
40 […] the national competition authorities may exceptionally decide not to impose a fine although an undertaking has infringed Article 101 TFEU intentionally or negligently. That may in particular be the case where a general principle of European Union law, such as the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations, precludes imposition of a fine.
41 However, a person may not plead breach of the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations unless he has been given precise assurances by the competent authority (see Case C‑221/09 AJD Tuna  ECR I‑1655, paragraph 72, and Case C‑545/11 Agrargenossenschaft Neuzelle  ECR I‑0000, paragraph 25). It follows that legal advice given by a lawyer cannot, in any event, form the basis of a legitimate expectation on the part of an undertaking that its conduct does not infringe Article 101 TFEU or will not give rise to the imposition of a fine.
43 Consequently, the answer to the first question is that Article 101 TFEU must be interpreted as meaning that an undertaking which has infringed that provision may not escape imposition of a fine where the infringement has resulted from that undertaking erring as to the lawfulness of its conduct on account of the terms of legal advice given by a lawyer or of the terms of a decision of a national competition authority (C-681/11at paras 38 to 43, emphasis added).
As I said already, but particularly as a result of the very blunt approach to this matter by the CJUE, in my view, in practice, this approach may generate the result that (very expensive, specialised) legal advice in EU Competition law matters is not worth the paper it is written on--and, consequently, undertakings may not even bother seeking (and paying for) it.
Moreover, the level of pressure under which competition specialists will now operate may make it impossible for them to effectively cover (ie insure) their potential liability at reasonable costs--thereby having a negative effect on the availability and affordability of good quality legal advice in this field.
I suggested that the CJEU should depart from the Opinion of AG Kokott by adopting a more flexible approach and setting a less demanding standard for this defence (and,consequently, creating some room for an effective 'serious legal advice' defence).
In my view, that would have been preferable because resort to 'sound legal advice' can be coupled with the requirements connected with the implementation of effective competition compliance programs for the purposes of giving undertakings a chance of ever succeeding in proving lack of intention or unobjectionable conduct. In that regard, there seems to be some need for further consistent developments of the rules applicable in the 'self-assessment' paradigm created by Regulation 1/2003.
However, today's Judgment provides anything but consistency in that regard and gives a strong blow to everyone involved in legal advice in competition law matters. It seems unclear to me that the net outcome will be more (investment in) compliance with EU Competition Law.